Space Trivia, and a Cosmic Trip Planner

12:00 minutes

This is an artist's concept of the electric wind at Venus. Rays represent the paths that oxygen and hydrogen ions take as they are pulled out of the upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab, Krystofer Kim
This is an artist’s concept of the electric wind at Venus. Rays represent the paths that oxygen and hydrogen ions take as they are pulled out of the upper atmosphere.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab, Krystofer Kim

Did you know that, given enough time, the constellation we call the Big Dipper will one day become the Big Spatula? Or that the planet Venus really has it out for guests, with at least three different ways to finish off a visitor in short order? Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and author of the new book  Facts From Space,  joins Ira to share some of his favorite facts about the universe we live in. Plus, we’ll take a look ahead to the big astronomical event of 2017, the total solar eclipse. On August 21, a strip of land running across the entire continental United States will have a chance to see the eclipse, so plan your travel now.

Segment Guests

Dean Regas

Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As the year winds down and we start to look ahead to 2017, it’s time to step back and take a look at the big picture, I mean really big, like given enough time one day the constellation we know as the Big Dipper might look more like a Big Spatula. Or if you want something else to make your mind twist a little, what might a day look like in a star system with six or seven suns? Think about that.

Those are just a few of the ideas offered up by my next guest, no stranger to this program, Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of the PBS program, Star Gazers, and author of a really cool new book, Facts From Space, recently out from Adams Media. Welcome back, Dean.

DEAN REGAS: Oh thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: We’re on tap to eventually have a Big Spatula constellation?

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah.

IRA FLATOW: What’s going to happen there?

DEAN REGAS: That’s kind of one of those funny things, is that the stars are moving relative to our position here. And so over thousands and thousands of years, the constellations we see today will actually change a little bit. But we’re talking big amounts of time, 75,000 years for us to notice a big difference. So our distant, distant ancestors will be able to look up at the stars, where we saw the Big Dipper they’ll see something that looks like a Big Spatula. And who knows what kind of mythology will still spring from that?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah because when we look at the Big Dipper, at the stars, we think they’re all together. They look like they’re together in the sky, but they’re really spaced far apart, aren’t they?

DEAN REGAS: Oh yeah, they’re quite different distances. And so when we look at that, when we look at Orion, all of the stars and Orion are different distances from us. So we actually can tell their distances and see what they would look like from different perspectives. So if we went around on the side, Orion wouldn’t look like Orion at all. And it’s just from where we are positioned in space, that’s what we see.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve got a ton of great facts in this book, and the subtitle is Extra Terrestrial Facts to Blow Your Mind.

DEAN REGAS: Yes, yes.

IRA FLATOW: How did you collect them all over the years? Did you actually take notes every time something popped up?

DEAN REGAS: Well, so I’ve been teaching astronomy for a long time, for about 18, 19 years. And so I do these programs about– I try to popularize the subject. I talk about Mars. I talk about the moon. And I give facts, and I can actually see what audiences react to, that they really like certain ones. And so I’ve taken some mental notes over the years. And then this book came about. I put them down on paper and ended up with 500 facts pretty quickly. And then the publisher said, well, that’s a good start, we need 1,000. So I had to get 500 more of the greatest hits I could find.

IRA FLATOW: You have a run down of smuggled items on board rockets.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, yeah. I mean this is– we think of the astronauts as these heroic people that they did these great things and risked their lives and that’s all true. But man, they could have some fun too. And so some of the astronauts smuggled– one astronaut smuggled a sandwich on board, which they just started while they’re talking to NASA. And they said, put that sandwich away.

On a Russian mission, that the wife of one of the astronauts smuggled a box of chocolates on board. They open up the box of chocolates when they’re up in space, chocolates fly everywhere in the weightlessness of space, and the report said, it took them two hours to collect them. I think eat them more likely would be the right answer.

IRA FLATOW: And you make a special project out of taking a tour of the solar system. Let’s go through a few of those special places like Mercury.

DEAN REGAS: Mercury, the big surprise, I mean, this is the planet closest to the sun, number one. Its surface temperatures 600, 700, 800 degrees. And we find actually there’s water, ice on Mercury in the North Pole, which is, man, that was a surprise when we found that. And then if you’re on Mercury in certain places, you could watch the sunrise and then it’ll stop, turn around and go backwards and set where it rose and then rise again. It’s based on Mercury’s very slow day and it’s very fast year. It’s just a weird thing to see a sunrise, sunset, and sunrise, right in the same place.

IRA FLATOW: And Venus, there are three ways to die on Venus real quick?

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, this is probably the worst planet for humans. I mean, we don’t want to go there. What we found from our robotic spacecrafts was number one, there’s the heat. Venus is 900 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface, like everywhere, north pole, south pole, equator, daytime, nighttime, it’s 900 degrees.

Then why it’s so hot is because there’s these clouds, this dense atmosphere that traps in the heat. And that atmosphere would actually exert such force on you, it would squish you flat. The air pressure on Venus would squish you like a tin can. And then the third part where you could die is if the clouds open up and it starts raining. It doesn’t rain H2O, it rains sulfuric acid. So you would be a melted, squished, acidy pile of goop on Venus.

IRA FLATOW: You spent some time with Pluto. Do you take any political position about–

DEAN REGAS: Oh boy, here comes the controversial part. Yes, I do take a very strong position on Pluto. I am a Pluto is not a planet. And I’m very definitive about that. This is something that, boy, I had to come to this the hard way. Because I was always a Pluto defender.

When I grew up, Pluto was a planet. I love Pluto. It was my favorite planet because it was so weird and odd and small. Then we found out in the ’90s and 2000s that it’s not alone out there. And we found now over 1,000 objects out where Pluto lives. And so that these other objects resemble Pluto a lot more than Pluto resembles, let’s say Neptune.

And so, I still think, OK, Pluto should still be a planet. But then I have to think, well, what are you going to do at the other 1000 things? Are you going to call those planets too? And I thought, you know, I’m an educator, so how am I going to teach the kindergartners, the 1008 planets. This is going to be tough.

But there’s actually a precedent for this. Planets have been kicked out of the planet club. Asteroids used to be planets and they got kicked out. So I got the historic perspective. And then talking to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Mike Brown, the discoverer of other objects out there, they talked me into it. So I’m now a Pluto is not a planet person.

IRA FLATOW: So the New Horizon discoveries that were making Pluto come to life with all the magnificent photos, that doesn’t change your mind about how could this not be a planet?

DEAN REGAS: This does not change my mind. I call it a unbelievably magnificent world, that’s for sure, not a planet, but a magnificent world. And there’s so many of these out there. There’s Eris that we need to explore. There’s Sedna, there’s Makemake, Haumea. And then there’s all these moons that are out there too, the moons of Jupiter, the moons of Saturn, that are worlds of their own too.

So I put Pluto in the category of a unbelievably cool world. I’m so glad we went to see it. We sent the spacecraft out the year before Pluto got demoted, which, whew, good timing. It got out while Pluto was a planet.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the future. Now I know, because I’m planning to see this one. There’s a really major solar total solar eclipse coming up in 2017, isn’t there?

DEAN REGAS: Oh this is good. I’m calling it the big one. We’ve been waiting for a total solar eclipse in the US for a long time, and this is going to be on August 21, 2017. Definitely mark your calendars. Because on that day the sun will be covered over by the moon completely, covered over for a few minutes. And it is the most amazing sight you will ever see.

I’ve seen a lot of astronomical events, but a total solar eclipses is like nothing you can ever see. And it’s going to be visible from Oregon out to South Carolina, on this little strip of about 100 mile wide strip of land. So you have to be in the right place at the right time to see it. And if you live close by, drive to that spot, because it should be magnificent.

DEAN REGAS: Of course you want to try to find the spot where it may not be cloudy, the chances of cloudiness are lower than other places, right? Exactly, so there’s a few hot spots that astronomers are looking at. I mean number one, the place where there would be the least likelihood of clouds would be in Wyoming. And so there’s a lot of folks that are going out to Cody, Wyoming and that environs out there. And then the place where you can get the maximum amount of eclipse, where you can see the maximum amount of time that the sun is blocked out, that’s going to be in a strip between Illinois and Kentucky. And so a lot of people are going to those two regions.

For me, I’m kind of not sticking on one place. I’m going to go wherever it’s clear. So I’m going to be mobile. I’ll be in my car with my telescopes and my cameras and my eclipse glasses, and hitting the road and going wherever it takes me. So I could be anywhere between Kentucky and Wyoming. That’s my plan.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think there’s going to be a stampede of people, that maybe make reservations now in advance?

DEAN REGAS: Well, we’ve heard from the people wanting to go to Kentucky and view it from there. And I have heard that the hotel prices are, well most of them are sold out, all the hotels are sold out. But ones that have availability are $899 a night, minimum stay of three nights. So if you haven’t booked your hotel yet, I recommend getting your tent and just camp out.

IRA FLATOW: I think the correct word for that would be astronomical.

DEAN REGAS: Oh my gosh, yeah, I mean you go to a Days Inn and it’s $899 a night. And people are paying it.

IRA FLATOW: But all you have to do is being in a parking lot though, right? You don’t have to be in a hotel. It’s going to last a few moments and you happen to just be driving. You could pull off the side of the road.

DEAN REGAS: Exactly. That’s what’s going to be interesting is, what’s going to look like on the highways and interstates as this happens and goes across I-80 or something like that. Yeah, but all you have to do is just stop and look. And I can hear Grandma Regas talking to me and saying, Dean, don’t look at the sun. Don’t look at the sun.

But this is the one time you can actually look at the sun, when it’s totally blocked out by the moon. And it is just incredible. I mean it’s one of those moments that, even just thinking about when I saw the last one, when I saw one 10 years ago, it’s just giving me chills thinking about it. It is really an awesome sight. So have you decided where you’re going?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah I’m going to go out, I’ll be out in Wyoming.

DEAN REGAS: Wyoming? All right. Great.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’m giving a talk, to have a bunch of astronomers out in Wyoming there.

DEAN REGAS: Excellent, that’s great. That’s great.

IRA FLATOW: I’m getting the whole family out to come with me. My daughter was crazy about seeing this three years ago. She said, Dad, we’ve got to go. I said, OK, and now we’re going.

DEAN REGAS: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. It should be real good for you. Getting families involved and friends involved, and this is something you shouldn’t miss, because in Cincinnati, we’re going to be 90% blocked, 90% eclipse. And people are saying, well, we’ll just stay in Cincinnati and watch the 90%. No, no, no, 90% is like 10% of the experience. You got to see the total thing. So the big event is August 21st.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t tell anybody. We need some hotel rooms still available.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, right, right, yeah. You haven’t booked your hotel yet.


DEAN REGAS: OK, yeah don’t go to Wyoming, people. Go to Kentucky. There’s still plenty of space.

IRA FLATOW: Not to mention the rental cars. We won’t mention that. Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of the PBS program, Star Gazers, and author of the new book, Facts from Space. It’s really a fun book. It’s subtitled From Supersecret Spacecraft to Volcanoes and Outer Space: Extraterrestrial Facts to Blow Your Mind. Dean, thanks again.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, my pleasure. And keep looking up, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Happy holidays. Coming up, we’re going to talk movie science, including a new Disney animation you’ll get swept up in.

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